Podemos surge shakes Spanish political system

December 28, 2015
Podemos supporters celebrate the new group's electoal breakthrough on December 20.

What was the central message of the December 20 Spanish general elections, which was “won” by the governing conservative People's Party (PP) of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy with only 28.72% of the vote, 3.6 million votes less than the last national poll in 2011?

Why did the opposition Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) greet its worst ever result —22.01%, 1.4 million votes less than 2011 — with a sigh of relief?

The behaviour of Spain's and Europe's leading players in the three days after the vote answer the first question: the Spanish state has entered a period of severe political instability, without any governing coalition readily available — a frightening prospect for Spanish and European elites.

With just over 5 million voters deserting the two main “parties of government” that have dominated Spanish politics since the 1977 transition from the Franco dictatorship, and with 8.69 million voting for first-time formations Podemos and Citizens, a struggle between old and new has opened up on both sides of politics.

A new election is possible, even probable — one in which the radical anti-austerity party Podemos could overtake the PSOE as the leading party of the left. Founded in 2014, the new force, along with regional electoral coalitions in which it took part, won 69 seats (20.66%, 5.189 million votes).

This scenario would amount to a Spanish version of the June 2012 Greek general election, in which radical left coalition SYRIZA overwhelmed traditional social democratic party PASOK after the May 2012 Greek poll failed to produce a stable governing majority.

All conceivable variants of governing coalition look impossible. Firstly, there is no right-wing majority, despite a rigged electoral system that favours the two big parties — especially the PP. On December 20, the broad right-left balance switched from 56.5%-43.5% to 47.6%-52.4%, as 1.65 million voters deserted the right and 2.65 million joined the left (with nearly a million more votes cast than in 2011).

(These figures also include the Catalan nationalist right that is supportive of Catalan independence and at war with the PP government in the category “right”. If these 566,000 voters are excluded, the right-left balance becomes 46.4%-53.6%.)

This result represented a big failure for the strategists of the right. They hoped to divert the flow of disgust and alienation with the Rajoy government into Citizens, their political spare wheel in case of a PP blow-out.

Yet Citizens had its own puncture on December 20. After touching 20% in the polls as recently as late November, the “hipster” anti-Podemos only managed 13.93% (40 seats). The PP's 123 deputies and Citizens' 40 fall 13 short of the absolute majority of 176 seats. This leaves Citizens' leader Alberto Rivera with little leverage in the new parliament and the right as a whole in the same position as their Portuguese counterparts — dependent on divisions in the left if they are to hold onto power.

This sad result is the flip-side of the main story of the election: Podemos's recovery from under 15% in opinion polls in early November to the position of challenging the PSOE for second place in the last week of the campaign. This surge began with Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias's victory in the main campaign TV debate and continued on the back of stormily enthusiastic campaign rallies that culminated in a powerful 10,000-strong meeting in Valencia.

As a result of Citizens' deflation, a PP-minority government can now only be formed if the PSOE's 90 deputies abstain in the second-round investiture ballot that requires a relative, not absolute, majority. Only with PSOE abstention can the 123 PP MPs outnumber the other 97 MPs certain to vote against it.

These MPs represent Podemos, Popular Unity (centred on the United Left), the Catalan left coalition Together We Can, the Valencian coalition Commitment-Podemos, the Galician left coalition In Tide, the Catalan centre-left Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and right nationalist Democracy and Freedom (DL), the Basque right-nationalist Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) and the left nationalist EH Bildu, and the centre-nationalist Canary Coalition (from the Canary Islands).

The PSOE's options

The PSOE has three options: to continue as the main, if weakened, opposition party against a minority PP administration; to negotiate a “German” grand coalition with the PP; or to try to create a “Portuguese” minority left administration supported by Podemos and various nationalist forces.

A PP-PSOE “grand coalition” is a favourite with the European Commission, Spanish big business and some PSOE “barons”, including former prime minister Felipe Gonzalez. However, if the PSOE took this path it would be signing its own political death warrant.

In the election campaign, the PSOE barely managed to hold off the Podemos surge by mounting a violently demagogic, tub-thumping campaign against “Rajoy”. For the party whose Twitter slogan was #LetsThrowOutRajoy to join forces with the PP leader (branded as “indecent” by Sánchez himself) would be a whopping gift to Iglesias. That eloquent and cutting Podemos leader would have a field day painting a PP-PSOE alliance as a desperate survival tactic by the “caste” against which the popular indignado revolt began in May 2011.

For some of the PSOE's regional barons, the least evil path is to remain in opposition by abstaining on the formation of a PP minority administration. On December 21, PSOE premier of Castilla-La Mancha, Emiliano Garcia-Page, decried “pastiche governments” created by “complex deals” — a clear reference to Portugal, where the Socialist Party governs with the external support of the Left Bloc and Portuguese Communist Party.

The problem with this position is that it still requires the PSOE to hand government to the PP — after the emergence of a left majority on December 20 that is as big as in Portugal and which Sánchez himself has welcomed (“Spain has turned left”).

The PSOE leader thus has no alternative but to try for an agreement with Podemos — despite the concerns of his regional barons, led by Andalusian premier Susana Diaz who said she would “take up” the issue at the December 27 PSOE federal council meeting. On December 23, Sánchez announced that the PSOE would not vote for nor abstain in ballots on the inauguration of a PP administration. Rather, he would open negotiations with Podemos if and when the PP failed to get the parliamentary numbers.

At the same time, the PSOE leader said his one precondition for entering negotiations was that Podemos abandon its call for Catalonia to be allowed a Scottish-style referendum on independence.

With this declaration, Sánchez launched the PSOE's first round of warfare against Podemos for hegemony of the left. He will now ask repeatedly whether Pablo Iglesias insists on sacrificing the formation of a left government that could improve the lives of ordinary working Spaniards to his alliance with “the separatists”. He will question whether that is reasonable when the PSOE has its own plans for creating a federal Spain responsive to the concerns of the nationalities.

The PSOE will thus keep up the pressure on Podemos to become “responsible” and — with the guaranteed support of the viscerally centralist Spanish media — intensify the feeling of a crisis of governability due to perverse Podemos intransigence.

If the PSOE succeeds in manufacturing the mood that Podemos has put its own interests ahead of those of the country, it could widen its presently very narrow room for manoeuvre. It would be able to go to early elections with some hope of winning support back from its radical rivals.

That difficult battle lies ahead, but it would have been even more difficult if Podemos had overtaken the PSOE on December 20 (as forecast by some final opinion polls). The radical formation that has shattered the Spanish political mould would then have been the official opposition with even more power of initiative.

Little wonder, then, that the PSOE's worst ever results produced a sigh of relief in its headquarters. “We haven't beaten the PP, but we've beaten the polls,” was the way Sánchez lieutenant César Luena described the battered social democracy's success in keeping Podemos at bay.

An advance for democracy

However, Sanchez's chosen tactic (the only one feasible despite the nervousness the PSOE's regional premiers) will launch the party into a high-stakes confrontation with no guarantee of victory — given the popular sentiments driving the advance of Podemos and the various left regional coalitions in which it took part. That's because the main revelation of the election is that Spanish centralism, while still the majority outlook across the state, is definitely on the wane, especially within the younger generation.

Podemos, and the Catalan, Valencian and Galician coalitions in which it took part, were the big winners on December 20. The most important reason for their surge was Podemos's stance on the national question: for the first time ever, an all-Spanish party winning more than 20% of the vote came out unambiguously in favour of the national right to decide. Onthis basis, Podemos made electoral alliances with nationalist forces in Galicia and the Valencian Community.

That 20% represents a leap well beyond the usual all-Spanish level of support for the right to self-determination, hitherto at around 10% in opinion polls. Political analyst Josep Ramoneda put his finger on this crucial change in a December 23 comment in the Catalan daily Ara: “The coalitions with Podemos have won in the Basque Country and Catalonia. Why? Because they have acted as natural democrats.

“Podemos's correct move has been to unreservedly take on board the national character of these territories and to abandon the strategy of confrontation — of impassable lines in the sand — of the other Spanish parties. They have simply talked to the Basques and Catalans without snarling, practicing elementary recognition of the viewpoint of others.

“And the most interesting thing of all is that, in contradiction with received wisdom, this attitude of respect and democratic engagement has not only won many votes in Catalonia and the Basque Country, it has not lost a single vote in the rest of Spain.”

Podemos's advance therefore represents a big step forward for democratic values across the Spanish state. Table 2 gives the results for Podemos and the coalitions in which it took part and a comparison with its results in the May 27 regional elections (before the radical force went on the offensive with its support for the right of self-determination).

In the May 27 regional elections, which took place in 13 of the Spanish state's 17 “autonomous communities” (administrative regions) and occurred before the radical force went on an offensive with its right of self-determination, Podemos averaged 13.58%. On December 20, Podemos's vote increased to 20.66% for the whole Spanish state (up 7.08%).

However, in seven communities where nationalist or regionalist forces usually stand and in three of which (Galicia, Catalonia and the Valencian Community) Podemos was part of broader alliances, the average rose to 24.31% (an increase of 10.77% compared to the regional elections). This compared to an average increase of 3.19% (to an average vote of 16.79%) in the 10 autonomous communities where national and regional questions are not central.

The most remarkable success came in Catalonia, where Podemos was part of the Together We Can coalition (with the Barcelona Together platform of mayoress Ada Colau, Initiative for Catalonia-Greens, the United and Alternative Left and the green party Equo, as well as various social and community collectives). No Catalan nationalist forces were part of Together We Can, but it received support from various figures from the left-nationalist Popular Unity Candidacies (CUP), which decided not to stand in a “Spanish election”.

On December 20, Together We Can, which supports a Catalan right to choose but is not necessarily pro-independence, came first with 24.74% (12 seats). It was followed by the pro-independence ERC (15.98%), the PSOE's Catalan affiliate, the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (15.7%) and Democracy and Freedom, a new platform grouping more conservative nationalists around Democratic Convergence of Catalonia, the party of Catalan premier Artur Mas (15.08%).

This striking result largely came about because Podemos's leaders had learned the lessons of its clumsy intervention in the September 27 Catalan “plebiscitary” election, called as a substitute for the referendum on Catalan independence that is opposed by the PP and PSOE. In that campaign, Iglesias and Podemos number two Iñigo Errejón spent nearly as much time and energy attacking Mas as they did Rajoy. They tended to paint the Catalan national struggle as a diversion from the more serious demands of the social and economic crisis.

The result of that operation, combined with Ada Colau's decision to stay on the sidelines, favoured the shock surge of the anti-Catalanist Citizens (especially in working-class neighbourhoods in and around Barcelona) and the disappointing result of the Catalonia Yes We Can coalition (8.94%), in which Podemos was a key player. It also led to the post-election resignation of Podemos's Catalonia secretary-general Gemma Ubasart.

The Together We Can campaign, in which Ada Colau returned to play a central role, succeeded in turning the situation around. More broadly supported by social and community collectives, more sensitively constructed, and with historian Xavier Domenech as its affable and articulate lead candidate, Together We Can brought together nearly all currents to the left of the PSOE's local affiliates.

So powerful was the tide the campaign generated that Together We Can beat the Party of Socialists of Catalonia in its two remaining Barcelona-region strongholds (Santa Coloma de Gramanet and El Prat de Llobregat). It pushed Citizens back from second to fifth (losing 250,000 votes compared to September 27). In Barcelona city's 10 districts, Together We Can's vote rose by 40,000 compared to Colau's victory in the May council election.

This splendid result was matched in the Valencian Community. With 25.09% of the vote, the Valencianist force Commitment increased its representation from one seat to nine on the basis of its united campaign with Podemos. Likewise in Galicia, where the In Tide coalition — including Podemos, the left nationalist force ANOVA and the United Left — built on the united citizens' tickets that took major city councils in May, winning 25.04% (six seats).

The Podemos tide reached its other high points in the Basque Country, where it won five seats (25.97%) in alliance with Equo, beating the ruling PNV on votes but not seats; Navarra, where it won two seats (22.99%); the Balearic Islands (two seats, 23.05%); and the Canary Islands (three seats, 23.28%).

In all seven of these regions, as well as in Madrid, the vote for Podemos or the coalitions of which it was part surpassed that of the PSOE. If that vote were repeated at regional elections, Commitment would replace the PSOE in the premiership of the Valencian Community and Podemos would replace the PSOE in the premiership of the Balearic Islands.

The gains to the coalitions in which Podemos took part accounted for 27 of the total of 69 seats it won on December 20.

Another important gain for Podemos was winning representation in regions that have rarely, if ever, elected MPs from outside the traditional PP-PSOE duopoly. Its vote was high enough for Podemos to break into PSOE bailiwicks like Badajoz (Extremadura), as well as PP heartlands in Castilla y León and Murcia.

Unity, once again

In the light of these successes, it might seem churlish to ask whether the left beyond the PSOE mightn't have done even better at this general election. Yet this question effectively asks itself in the light of the combined vote of Podemos and the United Left — the longer-standing radical left group with which Podemos's leaders declined to develop a united platform except in those places where both were part of broader alliances (Catalonia and Galicia).

When the separate votes of Podemos and its allies and the United Left are added together, the total is 23.68% (6.112 million), as against the PSOE's 22.01% (5.531 million). However, given the undemocratic Spanish electoral system of electorates based on provinces of unequal size, this would not necessarily have translated into a combined Podemos-United Left seat majority over the PSOE.

Nonetheless, it would have greatly have reduced the gap between the joint Podemos and United Left seat tally of 71 and the PSOE's 90. According to a study published on the December 22 Público web site, a combined Podemos and United Left ticket would have won 84 seats against the PSOE's 88, with the extra seats largely concentrated where they would be most needed — in the autonomous communities of PP, PSOE and PNV strength.
These numbers have provoked discussion on the left about the Podemos leadership's determination to marginalise the United Left—and its main component force, the Communist Party of Spain — as rival for hegemony over the non-PSOE left. On December 20, the United Left — running in alliance with other forces as Popular Unity (UP) — won only two seats (in Madrid), despite winning 923,000 votes. Luckily for the left as a whole, its articulate and forceful lead candidate, Alberto Garzón, survived as an MP.

In comments on election night, Garzón pointed to the unity achieved in Catalonia and Galicia — where the United Left won three seats for its candidates within Together We Can and In Tide — as the way forward for the left.

However, for the Podemos leadership, any direct association with the United Left and the Communist Party would have reduced Podemos's appeal, alienating potential support from disillusioned PSOE (and even PP) voters at the same time as throwing a lifeline to a drowning rival.

In the pre-election alliance negotiations, Podemos leaders also insisted that the broader alliances should be associated, in look and name, with Podemos. This produced moments of tension with other participants, leading to sharp debates — for example, within Commitment and the United and Alternative Left in Cataloni — over the political price being asked for by Iglesias's group.

When the dust settled after these negotiations, the Podemos name appeared in the alliances in Catalonia and the Valencian Community, but not in Galicia. There, the authority of historic Galician nationalist leader Xosé Manuel Beiras (of ANOVA) ensured that In Tide continue the habit of naming electoral alliances after the tides of popular resistance in the region.

Debate over the Podemos leadership's alliance tactics is bound to continue (including within the party), with many insisting that its electoral advance on December 20 represented an incomplete expression in institutional politics of the last five years of social revolt and resistance across the Spanish state.

Whether this was true of this now-finished election campaign is impossible to determine: what remains crucial, however, is how to apply the lessons of its greatest successes—in Catalonia, Galicia and the Valencian Community—in the battle to win the extra popular support needed to replace the PSOE as the lead party of the left.

Losses of left nationalism

Podemos's successes on December 20 largely, but not exclusively, at the expense of the PSOE. Its vote was 20.66%, but the vote to the left of the PSOE rose by less — 17.82%. The difference mainly reflects votes lost by the United Left (down 3.25%) but also left and centre-left nationalist forces in Galicia, the Basque Country, Navarra and the Canary Islands.

A clear case was that of the abertzale (patriotic) Basque left group EH Bildu. In the outgoing Spanish parliament it had, as Amaiur, seven seats (six in the Basque Country and one in Navarra). After December 20, it will have only two from the Basque Country, the result of losing more than a third of its 2011 support of 334,000 votes.

A more dramatic loss in Galicia saw the historic Galician Nationalist Bloc (BNG), which campaigned with other nationalist forces in the Nos (Us) alliance, lose its two seats as its vote fell by 60% in the face of the rise of In Tide.

On the Canary Islands, the vote for the Canary Coalition nearly halved, cutting its representation in the Spanish parliament from two to one. On the Balearic Islands, the left nationalist Mes (More), which won 13.8% in the May regional elections, failed to enter the Spanish parliament with a vote of only 7.02%.

All these forces were victims of Podemos's vision of Spain as a plurinational “country of countries”. This vision finally gives a political voice to those in the Spanish state who identify as Catalans, Basques, Galicians or other national or regional minorities, but who see the other peoples of the Iberian peninsula as brothers and sisters and don't want to break from Spain. Polling in the various regions of the state consistently situates millions of Spanish citizens in this category.

This revelation of December 20 is already having an impact in Catalonia, intensifying the pressure on the CUP to agree to the formation of a pro-independence government led by acting premier Artur Mas for the coming struggles between Catalonia and a weakened Madrid.


Podemos's success enabled it to immediately call for a left government and lay down five conditions for supporting a minority PSOE administration.

These conditions are: allow a referendum on independence for Catalonia; enact a constitutional reform to guarantee social rights; secure the real independence of the judiciary; reform the undemocratic electoral system; and create the possibility for a half-term citizens' motion of no-confidence in government.

These points concentrate the essential stances of the three mass movements that have shaken the Spanish state since 2011: the movement of indignados against corruption and for “real democracy”, the various “tides” in defence of public health and education, and the huge movement for Catalan independence. After five years of political turmoil, they probably sound pretty reasonable to a majority of the Spanish population (with the exception, now increasingly uncertain, of the referendum for Catalonia).

Podemos's demand for a referendum on Catalan independence, which will take the form of asking PSOE leader Sánchez exactly why he can't be as good a democrat as the Tory David Cameron, guarantees that the right of a nation to self-determination will remain in the very centre of political debate in the Spanish state.

This is especially so when, combined with demands for action on social and democratic rights and against corruption, it must also have powerful repercussions in Europe — strengthening the tide of resistance to austerity, providing a new source of support to Greece and Portugal, and inspiring the left and genuine democrats in other European countries.

In the face of such a prospect, the enemy will not remain quiet. An early harbinger of dirty tricks to come is the idea being tossed around within the PP that In Tide, Commitment-Podemos and Together We Can be denied the status due to them as separate parliamentary groups on grounds they are “simply” extensions of Podemos. This would rob the three groupings of important political visibility and funding.

However, for this piece of bastardry — carried out against Amaiur in the previous legislature — to take place, the PSOE would have to support it. How the traditional party of Spanish social democracy votes when the time comes will tell us a lot about its tactics in the life-and-death struggle with Podemos, the clear winner of December 20.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly's European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]

Like the article? Subscribe to Green Left now! You can also like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.